Dianne Wiest's Winning Winnie in Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days"

Whatever else it is, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is without doubt a test that many of our most formidable actresses give themselves. Dianne Wiest is the latest—under James Bundy’s direction at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Center—and, as the indomitable Winnie, she comes out with flying colors. That’s in addition to her at one point flying a parasol that suddenly bursts into flames.

In a two-hander, during which one hand has much more to do than the other, Winnie is initially discovered buried up to her waist on a barren hill greeting another happy day, while hubby Willie (Jarlath Conroy) battens down almost entirely unseen. From a black bag she draws items while chattering—often “in the old style”—about its contents and about anything else that crosses her wandering mind.

Frequently, she addresses Willie, who’s on the other side of the hill and spotted only occasionally reading a newspaper. Sometimes she cajoles him. Sometimes she chides him. Always she makes it clear that, whether or not he answers her, she relies on his companionship.

Brushing her teeth, fondling a pistol about which she muses but never appears ready to use, worrying about her hair, putting on and taking off a dainty hat, she alternates between light banter and deeper concerns. She debates, as she gestures broadly, whether or not she’s ready to sing her song—“The Merry Widow Waltz”—before the bell clangs signaling the end of her day.

When the second act begins, Winnie is now buried to her neck. Her bag remains in place and the pistol lies near her, but she is able to access neither. She has nothing but her thoughts—and Willie, who, she surmises, may have abandoned her. He hasn’t and does show up later in soiled formal wear, including top hat.

Again, Winnie dithers on many subjects but is unable to be quite as blithe about her situation as she was in act one. Nonetheless, she still finds reasons to declare the day a happy one—if only thanks to Willie’s “surprise” visit.

Much of the enormous challenge a performer faces is Winnie’s undeterred rambling. Holding interest has to be difficult, but it turns out to be a piece of cake for Wiest.

In the first act the acting legerdemain occurs through the skilled use of her arms and voice. Vocally, she glides across registers while adroitly raising and lowering her volume. Wiest lovers will recognize the young girl edge she often uses, but she employs other ranges to both comic and serious effect.

Vocal coach Walton Wilson and movement coach Jessica Wolf must have aided Wiest in the first act. In the second act, she only needs Wilson, because she’s limited to whatever facial gyrations she can muster. For a minute or two Winnie even discourses of the parts of her face she can actually see, the tip of her nose being the most visible.

Since there’s no program credit for make-up, perhaps it’s fair to assume Wiest does her own severe aging. She’s helped by a change of wig to one considerably less permed. She also has a dustier version of the hat she’d earlier been sporting.

Of all the Winnies I’ve seen—there have been many (but not Ruth White who premiered the play at Manhattan’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961)—I don’t recall any who, as Wiest has, so radically transformed Winnie from the generally jolly Winnie of act one to act two’s outwardly depressed, while attempting to seem otherwise, Winnie.

I’ll go so far as to say that Wiest’s act two is the best interpretation of the heartily harrowing role I’ve ever witnessed. Wiest conveys the ravages of time superbly as well as disturbingly—in a play about nothing if not Beckett’s insistence that time gets us all in the lonely end.

And speaking of time, the large mound of hardscrabble turf that set designer Izmir Ickbal has loaded onto the TFANA stage can be taken as a palpable representation of time overcoming everything in its realm. Costume designer Alexae Visel, lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge and sound designer Kate Marvin do their share of enhancing Beckett’s hopeful gloom—Marvin contributing much by way of the deafening bells that represent another time synecdoche.

(Incidentally, a few of the designers are repeating their work for this Happy Days when it played in 2016 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where Bundy is artistic director as well as the Yale Drama School dean.)

The more this Beckett aficionado watches Happy Days productions, the more it becomes blatantly obvious it’s a companion piece for the playwright’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. Again, we have a two-character work placed in a no-man’s (no-woman’s) land. Again, we have a two-act piece taking place on two days—two consecutive days, it looks to be, in Waiting for Godot, but possibly two more distant days for Happy Days.

With Waiting for Godot, Beckett calls for one leafless tree (a tree that acquires leaves for the second act). For this Happy Days, Ickbal provides two leafless upstage trees—three, if a lone branch sticking out of the earth downstage is counted. Here, they remain leafless.

(Incidentally, Winnie only able to move her mouth with any flexibility is also reminiscent of Beckett’s Not I, throughout which a mouth—and nothing else—appears.)

Maybe a Waiting for Godot/Happy Days double-bill could be called Waiting for Godot on a Happy Day. Never mind, they’re both must-see plays—and right now this Happy Days realization.

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